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Bay Area Baseball

This Ain't T-Ball

Wow. Were the 2005 Giants ever bad. Losing Barry Bonds for most of the season cost them 100 runs, and the rest of the lineup was much worse than in 2004. The pitching staff struggled through the first half of the year, but Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessey and Matt Cain put together very good performances after the All-Star Break, making sure the Giants didn't go from 100 wins to 100 losses in just two years.

Short of one hot month for Randy Winn, there were no such bright spots on offense, which scored fewer runs than every major league team except the Washington Nationals, who revealed mid-season that the outfield power alleys in RFK Stadium were actually 10 feet further away than they had thought.

So when Brian Sabean gave a post-season interview to the San Francisco Chronicle, it was notable when he chose to point out: "I think we all over-evaluated our pitching staff, our starting staff."

Just to refresh your memory, the staff he chose to start the season was Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Brett Tomko, Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams. Before we get to Schmidt and Rueter, let's consider what the bottom of the rotation -- Tomko, Williams and Lowry -- did and compare it to what they've done in the past and what some smart baseball minds projected for them:

Tomko: 4.66 ERA, 5.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 (2005)
Tomko: 4.54 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 (career)
Tomko: 4.53 ERA, 4.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 (Baseball Prospectus projection)

Williams: 4.28 ERA, 5.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 (2005)
Williams: 3.93 ERA, 5.6 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 (career)
Williams: 3.94 ERA, 5.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 (BP)

Lowry: 3.89 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 (2005)
Lowry: 3.96 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 (BP)

What, exactly, didn't go according to plan here? 3/5 of the Giants' starting rotation was paid just $3.3 million, and they did EXACTLY what you would have expected if you'd shelled out $12 for the Baseball Prospectus or just penciled them in for exactly what they did last year. The implication here is that somehow these guys didn't play well, and that's completely wrong.

Last year's big free agents -- think Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano -- were unmitigated disasters despite their long-term contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. Those guys were "over-evaluated". Brett Tomko was Brett Tomko -- and he was better than Wright and Pavano -- and his one-year extension didn't pay him very much to do it. This is all merely an attempt to cover Sabean's ass for getting pissed off at Jerome Williams and stupidly trading him and David Aardsma for middling middle reliever Latroy Hawkins.

So the "over-evaluation" was of Jason Schmidt and Kirk Rueter. First, Schmidt -- with a body held together with bubble gum and duct tape, it was only a matter of time before something fell apart. His injuries this year robbed him of his effectiveness much of the season, and he wasn't significantly better than Tomko. These things happen, and it would be reasonable for a fan to assume that Schmidt would remain the ace he had been in years past. But the Giants have a medical and coaching staff that should give them a better idea of how well an injured pitcher is faring. A healthy and productive Schmidt would have been worth another four wins.

But what about Kirk Rueter? "Woody" is and was the definition of a "bum". And he was so obviously due for a disaster in 2005 that everyone who had ever seen him pitch knew it. I mean, even from my armchair, I knew it -- on February 2nd, I wrote, probably for the tenth time: "The faster they get Kirk Rueter out of the rotation the better." In 2003, his strikeout rate dropped to just 2.5/9IP, a record low for anyone who stood a chance of getting invited to spring training the next season. In 2004, he held steady, but steady at what? He was perhaps the 15th-best starting pitcher in the Giants organization at the beginning of the 2005 season.

This ain't T-ball -- this is major-league baseball, and if you stink today, you go home. Period. It doesn't matter what you did in one start in 1998. Rueter is even worse than Brian Cooper, who was exiled to Japan after two bad starts in 2004. Letting Rueter pitch cost them at least three wins compared to letting even Brad Hennessey pitch. Think about that the Giants didn't need to spend one cent on free agents. They already had an in-house solution in Hennessey who probably would have made them just that much better, and good enough to make the playoffs despite losing Bonds and Benitez for most of the season.

Sabean: "Maybe, if all things are equal, sometimes you have to lean on kids."

This is so well-understood in sports that it may well have been written in the Old Testament. And Sabean just now picks it up? Sabean started the season with Rueter, Jason Christiansen, Deivi Cruz, Michael Tucker, Jim Brower, Matt Herges, Marquis Grissom, Edgardo Alfonzo and J.T. Snow. They cost $26 million. And they produced about 10 runs less than the best AAA journeymen would have. The in-house alternatives, namely Jack Taschner, Scott Munter, Brad Hennessey, Jeremy Accardo, Kevin Correia, Todd Linden and Lance Niekro, supplemented with a couple of veteran minor-leaguers, would have produced better results and freed up $20 million in payroll to sign a real player. When you lean on young players -- and they don't even need to be good ones -- to fill in the margins of your production, you can afford Barry Bonds and Vlad Guerrero or Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez.

Sabean: "I'm embarrassed that we had to do it [referring to a season in which he dumped, demoted or traded 10 of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster.] The blame starts with me. We made choices, and they obviously didn't turn out."

Sabean's choices have been under fire for years now by the legion of fans he angrily dismisses as "The Lunatic Fringe." But his bad choices are now too numerous to mention. The recent good ones can be counted on the fingers of Mordecai Brown's right hand. The Giants have gone from a few outs away from winning the World Series to being 10 games below .500 despite increasing the payroll by 15%.

Yes, the blame starts with Sabean, but if Giants fans want to see a winner on the field, the blame has to mean something substantial. Finishing 75-87 would mean the end for Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein or any of baseball's top GMs. But it won't mean anything for Sabean, and so it won't make the Giants legitimate World Series contenders in the near future.